What We Have Wrought and Whither We Go: Some Questions about the Public Humanities

Currently, I fear, the digital humanities are not ready to take up their full responsibility because the field does not yet possess an adequate critical awareness of the larger social, economic, and cultural issues at stake. The side of the digital humanities that descends from humanities computing lacks almost all cultural–critical awareness, and the side that descends from new media studies is indiscriminately critical of society and global informational ‘empire’ without sufficient focus on the specifically institutional – in this case, higher education – issues at stake. (Liu, “State of the Digital Humanities” 11)

It would be difficult to deny that the Humanities are in some distress at this particular juncture of their history, and face an imposing and worrisome array of challenges — economic, political, and cultural — if they are to survive in some recognizable form into the next decade or so. The Humanities have not faced this threat quietly or complacently, but have also, I think, not been terribly effective in formulating a response. Reactions have varied, from ideologically-driven (and utterly unrealistic) demands for a simple turn-around in government funding policies and attitudes, to enthusiastically naive (or perhaps exceedingly cynical) calls for techno-utopian solutions such as MOOCs.

The most promising response, I think, has been one that steers something of a middle course, and imagines ways in which a dynamic collaboration of the Public Humanities with the Digital Humanities can both revitalize our fields while at the same time answer in an effective manner the strident critiques being levelled against the Humanities from outside the academy. There a number of obstacles to be overcome if such as an approach is to succeed, as the epigraph citing Alan Liu at the head of his post suggests. But there have also been some imaginative and thoughtful attempts to negotiate such an approach, by such scholars as Liu, Julia Flanders, and others. (I’ve listed just a few in “References,” below.) This post, and a few that will follow on it, are an attempt to make a modest contribution to this task.

If the Humanities are in some disarray at the moment, this in part because we have been forced onto the defensive. We have become reactive and, perhaps inevitably in that context, somewhat conservative. And having conceded the initiative, our responses have also become confused, ineffective, and often contradictory or counterproductive.  Part of the problem is that I think that this is an unnatural place for the Humanities to be: ours has, historically, been an evangelical and outward-looking movement, and I don’t think we are as effective when we are instead circling the wagons. So, I am not going to deny the facts of the criticisms being levelled against the Humanities, but I am, for the most part, not going to address them directly. I do so for strategic reasons, and not because I am in denial.

Another reason the Humanities are having such a difficult time marshalling an effective defence is that this assault from without coincides with the turmoil instigated by a powerful new force that is reshaping (some might say distorting) our disciplines from within. I refer, of course, to the so-called “digital turn” that is profoundly transforming not merely our fields, but our entire educational system, and indeed our very culture. To many Humanists, the advent of new computational approaches within our traditional fields seems profoundly “anti-humanist.” Others may be unable to clearly distinguish the upheaval that digital technology and approaches are bring about from the damage being done the Humanities by external forces. And indeed, we are wise to be vigilant that the digital turn, or at least its rhetoric, is not co-opted by the besiegers.

From a historical perspective, this fear within the Humanities of the change wrought by technology is an aberration. In fact, historically, the Humanities have been the beneficiaries, and not the victims, of new communication technologies. The volumen and the marvellously versatile codex were both technological innovations that helped preserve and disseminate the products of humanistic endeavour. This is even more true, of course, of the printing press: one of the most successful early exploiters of this new technology was Desiderius Erasmus, who actively engaged with the technical aspects of printing:

Erasmus was acutely aware of the role that the printer played in the success of a volume. Throughout his career he gave close attention to the production process, seeking out the best printers and working closely with them to ensure that the text was both elegant and accurate.  (Pettigrew 83)

Had Erasmus lived today, he might perhaps have become a Digital Humanist. He would certainly have been eager to make use of these new ways of disseminating knowledge and ideas. It would be odd, therefore, if the Humanities did not choose to exploit the power of a new technology to engage with our society, just as the Renaissance Humanists did before us.

Map of More's UtopiaAnd engaging with our society, rather than with the politicians, bureaucrats, and corporatists who have taken aim against the Humanities, is precisely what I propose to do. Personally, I am tired of feeling defensive, and of fighting this battle on grounds of the enemy’s choosing. It is time to take the offensive, and, moreover, to do so by engaging directly with those who are not being consulted in this debate, the “public.” It is time to resuscitate what I have called a militant Humanities, one that proves its cultural value not merely by force of argument, but by our choice of weapons. The best response to those who claim that the Humanities have become valueless is to demonstrate how vital and important a component of our culture they actually are. We can best prove that we are dynamic and relevant by actually being dynamic and relevant, and to show that we are a vital and positive cultural force by impacting, in positive ways, upon our culture.

In other words, I’m less interested in “advocating” for the Humanities per se (as important a task as this is) than I am in weaving it back into the fabric of our public culture in a way that makes it, ultimately, inextricable from the whole. I want to see the the Humanities made public, but that is only half of the equation: it is more important, ultimately, to make the Public humanist.*

What I am talking about is, of course, a particular version of what we have come to know as the “Public Humanities.” While, as I have suggested, my own interest is in the intersections and possible collaborations of Public Humanities with Digital Humanities, I will actually have relatively little to say about the latter below. This is because I want first to establish the nature and scope of the challenges that a Public Humanities faces, in order to better identify the role that I think the Digital Humanities can play in overcoming those. I have therefore begun by asking a series of questions about our field. These can be thought of as a series of reference points on a sort of conceptual map of the Humanities: taken together, I hope that they provide a useful (if of course limited) perspective on where the Humanities are now — “what we have wrought” — while gesturing towards what we might become — “Whither We Go.”

In a few future posts, I will build on these questions, and the answers that I think they demand, to discuss in more detail the actual role that DH might come to play in a “militant Humanities.”

Whom do we think we mean when we talk about about a “public” for the Humanities?

By and large, academics live, I think, an existence that produces a rather odd perspective on “public.” On the one hand, our on-campus jobs, in our classrooms, seminar rooms, and offices, are in some regards already very public. We are in some sense performing before a kind of public, albeit a rarefied one, every time we teach.

On the other hand, the work/personal time distinction for academics tends to be rather fuzzy:  we don’t generally work 9 to 5 hours, but we also usually do a great deal of work outside of those times: in the evenings and on weekends, for instance. (I wrote most of this blog post on a Sunday morning.) So, just as the public sphere tends to intrude upon our working time on campus, so too does our working time intrude upon the lives that we lead at large, “in the public.”

What this may mean is that we do not, perhaps, always have a very clear sense of what we mean by “public.” Understandably, we tend to think of the public, or at least our “public,” as comprised of people like ourselves, or like our students, except not quite so. Our public tends to look a bit like our classrooms, except that it congregates in museums and libraries and art galleries. It is generally pretty well educated, and reads a lot. And, most importantly, it is already interested in what we have to say. It likes and admires us, and is quiet and respectful when we speak. It asks intelligent questions when given the opportunity (at a time of our choosing), and doesn’t need to be told that what we are telling them is terribly, terribly important.

This all sounds very cosy and intimate, and this is a good thing. Unfortunately, however, this sense of cosiness and intimacy may largely be an effect of the fact that “our” public is also terribly, terribly small.

There is nothing at all wrong with reaching out to those who already wish to engage with us. But if we truly wish to communicate the values represented by the arts and humanities to those who don’t already share those values with us, we need to find new venues for engagement. And to do that, we have to be willing to step outside of our comfort zone more than just a little.

So we must identify new publics, and in so doing, make note of what it is that makes each distinct. We must learn how each sees itself with the context of the larger cultural matrix, and how it might see itself in relation to the Humanities. And, in order to engage with and serve each of these new publics, we must accommodate ourselves to them in a manner that is both sensitive to them, and true to our own values.

Where is “the public” to be found?

This question relates in fairly obvious ways to the one above, because there is an obvious correlation between whom we address and where we find them.  Or, more pertinently, where we look for them, because the size and nature of the publics we address will be a function of where we seek them out.

So, where do we look for our public?

There is a book, a collection of short essays, by Canadian writer Sheila Heti (with Misha Glouberman) entitled The Chairs Are Where the People Go. I’m not actually a particular fan of the book, but the title essay (which is, in fact, about arranging audiences for public lectures) might almost have been written for most academics. We tend to look for our “public” where the chairs are. And the chairs are mostly on campuses, or in libraries, or at museums.

Where do the people mostly go? Well, actually, most of them don’t congregate in such places, in chairs or otherwise. They are instead in a great many other places. And an awful lot of them are, as we know, online. Social media is very often where the people go.

Are we in the Humanities online, in social media, too? Well, yes, some of us, some of the time. But are we really employing the digital public sphere to engage a public, or do we mostly use it to network among ourselves? To answer that question, we all might glance over our Facebook “friends” list, or the lists of those we follow, and those who follow us, on Twitter. How many of these constitute our “public” . . . and how many are really “us”?

What is it, exactly, within the Humanities that we want to “make public”?

When faced with criticisms of the utility of the Humanities from the public media, it has become a reflex to speak about the importance of “critical thinking.” We tend to say this as though critical thinking was self-evidently at the heart of what we actually research about and teach (is it, really?), and also as though critical thinking were the exclusive preserve of the Humanities — a claim that I know that those in other fields would challenge.

One of our tasks then should be to interrogate what we mean by “critical thinking,” and to analyze the ways in which the particular flavour of such thinking in the Humanities differs (if indeed it does) from that offered by other fields in the sciences and social sciences. What, in other words, do we have to offer that is unique to our disciplines?

Stepping back from that fundamental question, we also need to ask ourselves what it is that we actually deliver to “our” public. When we give public lectures, place our research in the public domain, or blog and tweet about what we are doing in a publicly available venue, are we really offering insights into critical thinking?

Well, sometimes perhaps we do. My own perception, however, is that most often what we offer up is not an insight into humanistic modes of perception and thought, but rather what I will call, for want of a better word, “content.” By content, I mean something rather like “facts.” We lecture on the life and oeuvre of a particular poet, or talk about the evolution of an artist’s aesthetic vision, or we discuss the philosophical and ethical implications of a particular public policy.

This is all good stuff, I believe, but it is for the most part communicating the fruit of our own critical thinking and research, rather than demonstrating how we think and research. It tends to be built around a narrative that we have already constructed, rather than around the power and implications of building narratives.

So the question is this: if we believe (as most of us do) that it is more important that our students learn how to read (in all the multivalent senses of that word) and think critically than that they remember the dates of such and such an author or work of art, then why do we not think that this same set of intellectual priorities should apply to our non-academic public as well? If we believe (as most of us probably do) that the Humanities have a transformative power, and that they are of inestimable value to the thinking citizen of a democratic society, why do we think that we are performing an especially valuable service by lecturing on materials that we would probably relegate to secondary status in evaluation of student progress?

Do we believe that our broader public is less capable of, or less interested in, learning how to think in humanistic ways than our students?

Do we apply what we have come to know about teaching to our engagement with the broader public(s)?

This question in some ways follows naturally upon the one immediately above. We have, as a profession, expended a fair amount of thought over the last decade or more on learning and teaching strategies.  The advent of digital teaching tools and resources over that time, ranging from the homely Powerpoint slideshow to the might MOOC, has done much to change the way that we approach pedagogy, and these new resources have become, to greater or lesser degrees, an accepted part of our arsenal of teaching tools.

And, because tools change what we do, and how we think about it, as much as they transform the way in which we do things, our pedagogy has changed in interesting and (mostly) positive ways. Blended learning, peer-to-peer teaching, visualizations and project-based learning are among the more important new strategies we employ because we have come to believe that they are effective ways of communicating and instilling the skills and information that we wish to impart to our students.

But how many of us employ these when interacting with a public not comprised of our peers or our students? The Powerpoint (or Prezi, or Keynote) has certainly become ubiquitous, but what other tools do we use to engage with a broader public?

More importantly than the technology, have we sought to introduce new and innovative strategies for engaging with such publics? Have we thought about how blended or collaborative learning, or project-based interactions might assist us in such engagements? Have we tried to empower our public, to treat them as equals in dialogue with the Academy, to learn from them as they (we hope) will learn from us?

Do we listen to our public?

For whom do we build?

Looking beyond, for a moment, the perpetual debates within Digital Humanities about who is “in,” and what constitutes “building,” we can say truthfully that all academics “create” things, whether those things are monographs, articles, works of fiction or art, or digital tools. We create all of these things for particular audiences or communities of potential users. The classic scholarly monograph or peer-reviewed article, for instance, are invariably written for those who are like ourselves: for specialists in this or that field. Books and articles written for a popular audience — the latter might include, for instance, guest columns in a newspaper or a magazine article — are obviously produced for a larger audience, while a novel, poem, performance, or work of visual art is intended to appeal more broadly still.

All of these, whether of broad or narrow focus, seem to me to one degree or another to be cases of preaching to the choir. This is not to say that they are not useful, or valuable, or relevant, or even that they are not, sometimes, “public humanities.” But, because the forms that they take delimit the intended audience, they are all, by generic definition, addressing those who are already engaged with the humanities. Volumes of poetry, for instance, tend to be purchased or borrowed, and read, by lovers of poetry. Art exhibits are viewed by art lovers. Popular histories attract people who are interested in, yes, history. (The sole exceptions here might be newspaper articles. Or maybe not.)

As for digital tools — well, I can imagine the occasional non-academic having some fun playing around with a tool like Voyant, or Orbis, for a short while. But the vast majority of our digital resources, be they research tools, or electronic editions, are produced for a highly specialized use by people who closely resemble us.

Can we imagine what we might build for a different kind of audience? What sorts of tools might engage with those whom we have not already narrowly defined as peers or allies?

Who, exactly, are “we”?

Throughout this post, I have been writing as an academic, with a presumed audience of other academics (which I would take to include graduate students and librarians at least). Perhaps this is telling? Possibly the tendency of academics (including, evidently, myself) to think of ourselves as a very distinct group, rather than as a part of a larger community, is symptomatic of the reasons why all Humanities are not yet Public Humanities?

Definitions of the Humanities abound of course, but I particularly like this one from the 4Humanities project because of its focus upon the notion of community and contribution:

[T]he humanities contribute the needed perspective, training in complex human phenomena, and communication skills needed to spark, understand, and make “human” the new discoveries.  In the process, they themselves discover new, and also very old, ways to be human.  They do so through their unique contribution of the wisdom of the past, awareness of other cultures in the present, and imagination of innovative and fair futures. (“Mission,” 4Humanities)

The Humanities are a very broad and (ideally) inclusive community. We “do” the Humanities in universities and colleges, but surely we should acknowledge that we are not the sole custodians of and advocates for the many and diverse range of intellectual and creative activities that are denoted by that term. Public librarians, K-12 teachers of all sorts, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and writers, community leaders, fundraisers, and members of an enormous variety of creative, artistic, or generally humanistic ventures in the public sphere: these are all more than merely potential allies. They are, in a sense, another important facet of who we are.

And establishing who we are is a vital first step in communicating the values for which we stand. Acknowledging our membership within a much larger community of practitioners of the Humanities is important for that reason if for no other.

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* I am aware, of course, of the dangers potentially inherent in conflating “the Humanities” with older and frankly problematic forms of “Humanism,” and I use the term “humanist” somewhat guardedly for that reason. It is possible, however, to envision a newer, more diverse and nuanced form of “Humanism” that takes into account new understanding of globalism, sexuality, identity, and the other issues that now make the older ideology seem so out-of-date and untenable. See for instance Diana Brydon’s call for a more expansive humanism in “Do The Humanities Need a New Humanism?Centre for Globalization and Cultural Studies, Winnipeg: U of Manitoba, 2013.

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References

4Humanities: Advocating for the Humanities. Web. Accessed 5 May, 2013.

Brydon, Diana. “Do The Humanities Need a New Humanism?” Centre for Globalization and Cultural Studies, Winnipeg: U of Manitoba, 2013. Web. Accessed 5 May, 2013.

Draxkler, Bridget, Jentery Sayers, Edmond Y. Chang, Peter Likarish, et al. “Democratizing Knowledge,”HASTAC, Forums, 2009.

Flanders, Julia. “The Literary, the Humanistic, the Digital: Toward a Research Agenda for Digital Literary Studies.Literary Studies in the Digital Age: An Evolving Anthology. Ed. Kenneth M. Price and Ray Siemens. MLA Commons. New York: Modern Language Association, n.d. Web. Accessed 6 May, 2013.

Heti, Sheila, with Misha Glouberman. The Chairs Are Where the People Go: How To Live, Work, and Play in the City. Faber & Faber, 2011.

Liu, Alan. “The State of the Digital Humanities: A Report and a Critique.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 11.1 (2012): 1-34.

Marcotte, Sophie, Ichiro Fujinaga, Susan Brown, John Unsworth, Laura Mandell, Bênoit Habert, and Ray Siemens, “Public Digital Humanities,” Digital Humanities McGill, McGill University. 30 April, 2012. [Podcast]

Pettegree, Andrew. The Book in the Renaissance. New Haven and London: Yale, 2011.

Image Credit: Ambrosius Holbein. Utopiae Insulae Tabula, from Thomas More, Utopia (Basel, 1518). Wikimedia Commons.

With Friends Like This . . . ? Digital Humanities and the Right

Like most people, I am probably at my happiest when my own cherished assumptions about things about which I care are reinforced by others, or at least left unchallenged. It is not that I am a conscious quietist, or smugly complacent — I just prefer to think, most of the time, that I am “right.” But I also recognize the value of being made uncomfortable on occasion. To my own surprise, a brief and (I’ll readily admit) relatively unimportant short article in the right-wing Intercollegiate Review on the subject of the Digital Humanities has done just this.

Why Conservatives Should Embrace the Digital Humanities,” is by Danielle Charette, a Junior at Swarthmore College studying English and philosophy. Her post is articulate and well-written. And, although it seems clear that she is not herself studying Digital Humanities, she is better informed about it than the vast majority of undergraduates with whom I generally interact. Here is her thumbnail description of the discipline:

In a nutshell, DH is a way of thinking about interdisciplinary research and teaching, specifically as traditional disciplines–like history, philosophy, literature and art–take on a larger and more cohesive online presence. Through technology, professional curators can organize vast digital archives of famous and not-so-famous historical materials. And because these archives are searchable, curators  also “data-mine” the contemporary ways in which people search, read and interact with classic texts.

That there is, of course, a great deal missing from this account needs hardly be said, but it’s not a terrible description of some of the main contexts and themes at work in the field. Much more interesting, and for me unsettling, however, is her characterization of Digital Humanities as an essentially untheoretical enterprise, and a means of escaping from the “more corrosive academic trends that plowed through America’s college campuses after the 1960′s”:

the great thing about DH is that, though it is theoretical about the way we interact with physical and virtual books and streamline information, it is also profoundly textual.  Perhaps we’ve finally replaced the notorious 1980′s and 90′s heyday of highbrow postructuralist [sic] and postmodern theory [. . .] with a return to the actual text.

No one with any real familiarity with the ongoing debates within DH requires an explanation of how this characterization reinforces existing anxieties about our field: Digital Humanities has been criticized from within for its failure to nurture a native cultural criticism, and from without for its putative theoretical naïveté.

Of course, it is not true that Digital Humanities is really untheorized. Recent collections of essays  — Debates in Digital Humanities (2012), Digital_Humanities (2012), and Understanding Digital Humanities (2012) are all very much about the field’s engagement with a theoretical approach to, and understanding of, the intersections between digital technology and what we “do” as scholars in the arts and humanities. So too are countless essays, articles, interviews, blog posts, and even tweets.

Nor is it really the case that DH is not “political.” Tellingly, many of the elements left out of Charette’s description — the field’s ideological preference for open access and open source, its generally copyleft leanings, for instance — are precisely those which might undercut her argument that DH is a congenial home for conservatism. Her understanding of the nature of the texts that we work on is also, as Ted Underwood noted, out-of-date and misrepresents many of the projects with which the field is engaged:

A salient example, and a very well-established project that I suspect Charette would find less conformable to her view of the representation of the traditional canon in DH is, of course, Brown University’s Women Writers Project, which dates from the 80s, the very “heyday,” as Charette puts it, of “highbrow postructuralist and postmodern theory.” How well does a project that seeks to contribute to “the growing field of early modern women’s studies, whose project was to reclaim the cultural importance of early women’s writing and bring it back into our modern field of vision” really fit with a small-c conservative political agenda?

And then of course there are the vital strains of progressive ideology and theory represented by #TransformDH, and THATCamp Feminism East and West that are interogating not merely the larger cultural context, but Digital Humanities itself.  Charette misses these, and much else. At one point, for instance, she enthuses about the Digital Thoreau archive, and asserts that

DH is respectful of the author, the historical era, and the words on the page. Moreover, DH insists on context, or what Gerard Genett [sic] calls “pretext,” referring to the way the main text appears on the page in relation to introductions, prefaces, epigraphs, etc.

One wonders what she would make of distant reading.

It seems almost churlish to bring all of this up, not merely because this article is the work of an undergraduate, but also in the sense that Charette’s piece is not a critique, but a recommendation of Digital Humanities. It would appear that a vague, uncritical and untheorized processing of texts — the older, it would seem, the better — is exactly what “conservatives” are most likely to enjoy. To what end, one wonders? Or does that question seem too theoretical?

I don’t want to seem to be making too much of what is, after all, little more than an undergraduate essay with a particular and rather naive political agenda. Probably Ted Underwood is right, and I should be more wary of “drawing any lesson from the ISI piece.” And I also especially don’t want to seem to be “bullying” or “mocking” Charette: as much as I dislike her political perspective, I am impressed by her resourcefulness and her facility with the language, and, yes, pleased by her interest in the field. Most DHers are, after all, proselytizers, and Charette seems interested in engaging in some recruiting on our behalf.

And perhaps this is what most disturbs me about the article. It doesn’t “worry” me as a serious critique, even an implicit one, but it has unsettled me, not because it offers a trenchant attack upon DH, but precisely because it doesn’t. It frankly disturbs me that a conservative, even a relatively uninformed one, should find anything about DH congenial. How likely is it that she could make the same argument about, say, Feminist criticism, or Queer Theory, Ecocriticism or Postcolonialism? The central ideological assumptions of those fields would preclude any such attempt: they are too insistent upon their otherness to be suborned by the Right.

Much of what worries me has, of course, been expressed at greater length and more eloquently elsewhere, most notably in Alan Liu’s “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities,” an essay that I think one of the most important reflections upon the field to be produced in the last two or three years.

How the digital humanities advances, channels, or resists today’s great postindustrial, neoliberal, corporate, and global flows of information-cum-capital is thus a question rarely heard in the digital humanities associations, conferences, journals, and projects with which I am familiar. Not even the clichéd forms of such issues—for example, “the digital divide,” “surveillance,” “privacy,” “copyright,” and so on—get much play.

Liu’s lament that DH has not evolved its own form of cultural critique, nor joined to work with fields (such as media studies) that have, represents only half of the problem, for our failure to do so has made it all the easier for the rhetoric of digital humanities to be co-opted. As Richard Grusin noted in his paper “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities Pt. II,” part of a panel which caused a great deal of stir at MLA 2013, this has been particularly evident in the field of instructional technology and “digital pedagogy”:

I worry that digital humanities projects might serve as something like gateway drugs for administrators addicted to quick fixes and bottom-line approaches to the structural problems facing higher education today, providing them with the urge to experiment with MOOCs and other online forms of “content delivery,” which is how college courses are being increasingly defined by university administrators, government officials, and techno-utopians alike.

It is not, I think, that digital humanists are, as a breed, in any way sympathetic to those on the Right who see technology as a way of gutting (or “disrupting,” as the current rhetoric of the MOOC would have it) the Humanities. But in neglecting to be noisier or more insistent about the ideological assumptions of the field, we have allowed ourselves to become, perhaps, silent partners in their endeavour. Take, for instance, Cathy Davidson’s opinion piece in HASTAC, “If We (Profs, Teachers) Can Be Replaced by a Computer Screen, We Should Be!.” Davidson’s point is that the growing sophistication and potential offered by MOOCs and other online teaching technologies should serve as a wake-up call, and prompt us all to become better teachers. Fair enough. But Davidson consciously, and somewhat uncritically, deploys the language of the “disruptors” whose real agenda is, one suspects, not improving pedagogy, but rather making it cheaper:

In a world where lots of learning can be taught online, we better think seriously and carefully about our particular role in the classroom or we will be put out of business and perhaps we should be.   I’ve learned how to Moonwalk from an online tutorial.  I’m learning how to draw from online courses.   I’m learning Java Script on line.  I have a list of other things I’d like to learn.   Millions of others share my desire to learn when we can, in airports, on runways, on weekends, fit to my schedule.

Davidson, I am reasonably confident, does not support the gutting of Humanities departments and the replacement of teaching faculty with MOOCs. Indeed, she explicitly says as much. But her adoption of the language of the techno-enthusiasts is not nearly nuanced or critical enough to avoid giving aid and comfort to The Enemy.

Davidson is an influential advocate, within DH and without, for innovation in online teaching and instructional technologies, and I think her enthusiasm for these things has at the least hobbled the critical analysis and ideological awareness that should accompany such assertions. I think that she is not alone in this: DHers are often, in my view, far too busy being enthusiastic to take the time out to examine the larger political implications of the technology that so enthralls us, and that we are absolutely certain should enthrall everyone else as well.  At the same time, there is possibly a fear of biting the hand that feeds us: as what little funding remains to the Humanities is increasingly channelled in the direction of DH hires and digital projects, we are perhaps too happy, or simply too surprised, by the largesse to examine too closely the ideological strings that may be attached to the cheques.

And this is why I am unsettled by Charette’s short article. Not because it is particularly well-informed, nor because it represents an accurate account of the ideological and theoretical leanings of the Digital Humanities; as I’ve tried to suggest, I don’t think it does. But it is yet another instance of DH being co-opted by the Right, a rhetorical manoeuvre that is possible largely because our field is not insistent enough about its own assumptions.

We need to become noisier about the ideological underpinnings of the premises of our field. We need to start turning our critiques outward, and address them less to ourselves, and more to the broader disciplinary structures to which we belong. We need to insert our caveats about the technology as well as our enthusiasms into public discourse. We need to do what we in the Humanities are supposed to be especially good at: applying critical thinking and analysis to reveal and dissect the ideological agendas of those who would quietly recruit us as “fellow travellers.”

And, while we should always welcome critiques of what we do, whether from the Right, the Centre, or the Left, we need to make it clear that the subtle appropriation of our field by the Right represents (to use an apposite metaphor) a hostile take-over bid.

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References

Berry, David M., ed. Understanding Digital Humanities. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Charette, Danielle. “Why Conservatives Should Embrace the Digital Humanities.” Intercollegiate Review. Intercollegiate Studies Institute. 28 March, 2013. Web. 28 March, 2013.

Davidson, Cathy. “If We (Profs, Teachers) Can Be Replaced by a Computer Screen, We Should Be!” HASTAC. 14 February, 2013. Web. 29 March, 2013.

Digital Thoreau. WordPress Blog. Web. 1 April, 2013.

Matthew K. Gold, ed. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Web. 1 April, 2013.

Grusin, Richard. “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities Pt. II.” Center for 21st Century Studies. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 9 January, 2013. Web. 1 April, 2013.

Liu, Alan. “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 490-509.

Lunenfeld, Peter, Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp. Digital_Humanities. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013. Web. 30 March, 2013.

Women Writers Project. Women Writers Project, Brown University. Web. 1 April, 2013.

New and Noted: “Digital Humanities: A Resource List.”

McDayter, Mark, comp.  The Digital Humanities: A Resource List.  Research Group for Electronic Textuality and Theory, Western University. 3 May, 2012. Web.<http://ett.arts.uwo.ca/site/dhResources.html>

The Digital Humanities is a huge and sprawling field.  It encompasses within its “big tent” a diverse range of disciplines, subdisciplines, theories, and practices, ranging from text encoding to text mining and employing technology for pedagogy.

It has also spawned an enormous variety of tools, manuals, guides, theoretical discussions, discussion groups, organizations, and open access journals.

A little more than a month ago, I published, on the web site for the Research Group for Electronic Textuality and Theory in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Western University, a resource list of online materials to assist those finding their way through the maze of approaches and tools in the Digital Humanities.  “Digital Humanities:  A Resource List” was also compiled for my own sake, in an attempt to get some kind of handle on what was available.  Here is part of my “Introduction” to the resource:

This web site has been designed to provide a quick and simple reference source for information about, and resources for, the theory and practice of Digital Humanities. While it has been assembled for the particular use of scholars and students working in the Digital Humanities at Western University, it is open to anyone, and (it is hoped) will prove a particularly useful resource for those new to the field.

This resource list is avowedly neither comprehensive nor complete. The focus is upon free and open access tools and sources of information that can be of immediate assistance to those who wish to begin to engage with technology directly. Doubtless I have overlooked a great deal that is of value, and I will be updating these pages periodically with new materials as I become aware of them; a list of recent additions is to be found immediately below. All of the resources listed here are, for the moment, available online (although some exist in print as well); future iterations of this list may additionally include conventional print sources, as well as exemplary projects in the Digital Humanities. Additional areas that I will be adding in the future include digital archives, linguistics, and virtual worlds.

It has occurred to me that I have, rather oddly, neglected to make note of this resource here.  I am now making good that omission.

The site continues to expand on a nearly daily basis: I have added 52 entries since it was first published, and it now includes 171 entries in total (although a handful of these are repeated in multiple sections of the site).  They are distributed according to the following categories:

  • Introduction
  • Digital Humanities – General -19 entries
  • DH & Literary Studies – 31 entries
  • DH & History – 10 entries
  • Pedagogy & Technology – 31 entries
  • Digital Tools – 41 entries
  • Text Encoding Initiative – 19 entries
  • Content Management Systems – 4 entries
  • Learning Management Systems – 4 entries
  • Discussion Groups – 3 entries
  • Organizations – 9 entries

All entries include links to the resource in question, as well as a pop-up panel providing a more-or-less detailed description of the resource, most often lifted from the web pages of the resource itself.

I hope this proves useful to others.  It has already proven a useful exercise for myself.

New and Noted: “Collaborative Research in the Digital Humanities” (Ashgate)

Marilyn Deegan and Willard McCarty, eds. Collaborative Research in the Digital Humanities, Farnham: Ashgate, 2012.

This is a new collection of essays on a subject that is, really, central to the way Digital Humanities has evolved, and perhaps a necessary adjunct of its methodologies:  collaborative work and research.  The volume is edited by two stalwarts in the field, Willard McCarty and Marilyn Deegan, and contains essays by a great many familiar names.  It prompts two reflections on my part.

  1. I wish I were better at working collaboratively than I am.  (My reluctance stems less from a personal or professional dislike of collaboration than it does from laziness.)
  2. I wish scholarly books weren’t so hideously expensive.

This looks like a future “must read,” however. I am personally particularly looking forward to reading the pieces by Roueché, by Kathryn Sutherland and Elena Pierazzo, and by the HCI-Book Consultative Group and the INKE Research Team.

Here is the description as given on Ashgate’s page for the new volume:

Collaboration within digital humanities is both a pertinent and a pressing topic as the traditional mode of the humanist, working alone in his or her study, is supplemented by explicitly co-operative, interdependent and collaborative research. This is particularly true where computational methods are employed in large-scale digital humanities projects. This book, which celebrates the contributions of Harold Short to this field, presents fourteen essays by leading authors in the digital humanities. It addresses several issues of collaboration, from the multiple perspectives of institutions, projects and individual researchers.

And here is a breakdown of its contents:

  • Marilyn Deegan and Willard McCarty, “Foreword”
  • Willard McCarty, “Collaborative research in the digital humanities”
  • John Bradley, “No job for techies: technical contributions to research in the digital humanities”
  • Hugh Craig and John Burrows, “A collaboration about a collaboration: the authorship of King Henry VI, Part 3”
  • Julia Flanders, “Collaboration and dissent: challenges of collaborative standards for digital humanities”
  • Susan Hockey, “Digital humanities in the age of the internet: reaching out to other communities”
  • Laszlo Hunyadi, “Collaboration in virtual space in digital humanities”
  • Jan-Christoph Meister, “Crowd sourcing ‘true meaning’: a collaborative markup approach to textual interpretation”
  • Janet L. Nelson, “From building site to building: the prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE) project”
  • Geoffrey Rockwell, “Crowdsourcing the humanities: social research and collaboration”
  • Charlotte Roueché, “Why do we mark up texts?”
  • Ray Siemens, Teresa Dobson, Stan Ruecker, Richard Cunningham, Alan Galey, Claire Warwick, and Lynne Siemens, with Michael Best, Melanie Chernyk, Wendy Duff, Julia Flanders, David Gants, Bertrand Gervais, Karon MacLean, Steve Ramsay, Geoffrey Rockwell, Susan Schreibman, Colin Swindells, Christian Vandendorpe, Lynn Copeland, John Willinsky, Vika Zafrin, the HCI-Book Consultative Group and the INKE Research Team, “Human-computer interface/interaction and the book: a consultation-derived perspective on foundational e-book research”
  • Kathryn Sutherland and Elena Pierazzo, “The author’s hand: from page to screen”
  • Melissa Terras, “Being the other: interdisciplinary work in computational science and the humanities”
  • John Unsworth and Charlotte Tupman, “Interview with John Unsworth, April 2011”

Are We There Yet? Touch Press’s “The Waste Land” for iPad.

Usability studies have demonstrated that reading on tablets is more enjoyable than reading on the screen of computers and, in some cases, more than reading print. But this is for general reading: does it also apply to highly sophisticated digital scholarly editions? Is the sophistication of such editions, as we have conceived them so far, the enemy of accessibility and user-friendliness? Are tablet apps a possible way to enhance the appeal of Digital Scholarly Editions?  (Elena Pierazzo)

A month or so ago, I posted a review of the British Library’s “Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio'” app for iPad, a digital “edition” that I found to be more than a tad disappointing.  At roughly the same time that I downloaded the British Library’s “First Folio” app, I also acquired, at the particular recommendation of a friend, a book app devoted to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.  I would like now to consider this digital edition within the larger context of thinking about what such electronic texts should look like and do. In particular, I want to use this “review” as a leaping-off point for a subsequent discussion on the subject of digital texts for a more “scholarly” audience, with a particular focus upon texts for teaching. As Elena Pierazzo’s comments above might suggest, there is a great deal of potential in apps such as this to bring digital scholarly editions — whether intended for researchers or students — to the mainstream.  But are we there yet?

I teach some Eliot in a first year course, but my acquaintance with him, while more than merely passing, is probably not a great deal deeper than that of most experienced students (“official” or otherwise) of English literature. The Waste Land is, after all, arguably the defining poem of the 20th century, and in that sense it is communal property in a way that most other poems are not.  When I was a teen, and first discovered the enormous angst-potential of poetry, Eliot was The Poet, and The Waste Land  unquestionably the vital touchstone of a certain kind of moral and aesthetic “seriousness” in literary taste, so I became reasonably familiar with it at a fairly early age. And while I am more aware now than ever of how much I do not know about it, the poem still “sounds” to me as a familiar voice: comfortable and, despite all its gloom, somehow comforting.  Indeed, perhaps too much so, as the poem is for me somewhat more resonant with personal significance than is really helpful to someone who teaches it.  I looked forward to exploring the iPad app, and angsting away again to the familiar cadences of Eliot’s masterwork.

The digital "front page" of Touch Press's impressive "The Waste Land" app

The Waste Land  for iPad is published by Touch Press LLP and Faber and Faber.  The commentary that can be read alongside the poem in this app (and about which more below) have been taken, we are told, from B. C. Southam’s A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, first published in 1968. The involvement of Faber and Faber in this project is a very good sign in some respects: most of Eliot’s oeuvre was, of course, first published by that house, and Eliot himself was, from 1925 onwards, an employee (and eventually director) of the company.

Screen capture of a text page of the poem with marginal notes. Some of the latter are quite extensive, and expand when touched.

How happy am I to report that my high hopes for this app were fulfilled?  Well, very happy.  In almost every regard, this is a very capable and worthwhile treatment of Eliot’s poem.  It is not, it must be said, a “scholarly” edition of The Waste Land, but as a resource for general readers it exemplifies some of the really exciting things that can be done with digital texts.  The app, which is aesthetically very well designed and attractive, includes not merely the complete text of The Waste Land, but also a complete photo facsimile of Eliot’s annotated typescript of the poem, with the handwritten comments, suggestions, and criticisms that were added by Eliot, his first wife Vivien, and Ezra Pound. The typescript (the app calls it a “manuscript,” but hey, whatever) is lightly but informatively annotated. The poem itself can be read as a “clean” text, or with extensive (and often lengthy) explanatory annotations that appear to the left of the screen:  these address everything from the specifics of the allusions that the poem makes to aspects of the poem’s composition and reception.

Audio recordings of the poem being recited are also available, and can be listened to in conjunction with a view of the text (each line is highlighted as it is read): readers include Eliot himself (in two versions, from 1933 and 1947), Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes, Viggo Mortensen (huh?), and Fiona Shaw.  Shaw’s reading is taken from a dramatic “performance” of the poem that is also included with the app as a full-length video: it is a compelling and arresting performance (if also perhaps a little problematic in some respects, as an “interpretation” of the poem).

A still from Fiona Shaw's (very) dramatic reading of the poem.

One of the more interesting and innovative facets of the app is its surprisingly generous selection of video commentaries on the poem, found in a section of the programme entitled “Perspectives,” from a variety of writers and performers that includes the poet Seamus Heaney, editor Paul Keegan, critic and editor Jim McCue, poet Craig Raine, actor and director Fiona Shaw, punk musician Frank Turner, and the novelist Jeanette Winterson. The commentaries are fascinating precisely because they provide such a diversity of perspective on the poem; as each commentator speaks, the apposite section of the poem is displayed to the right, along with an occasional image relating to the commentary. In some ways, as someone who is already reasonably familiar with the poem and its history, I found this feature of the app most appealing, as it exposed me to some rather new, interesting, and diverse perspectives on Eliot’s piece.

A final feature of the book app is a modest gallery of images relating to the poem. The appropriateness of most of these is self-evident: they include, for instance, a couple of photographic portraits of Ezra Pound, and one of Vivien Eliot, as well a photo of the opening of the poem as it appeared in The Dial, where it was first published. Others seem a little odd: there are no less than two pictures of Bob Dylan who, we are told, was much influenced by Eliot’s poetry. This struck me as the least satisfactory element of the app, as the pictures seem a little miscellaneous and somewhat disconnected from the rest of the digital edition.

The publishers of the app have produced a video highlighting many of the facets of this edition:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=rlhosnfP-Jw

Much of the context, background, and interpretation that this app provides for the poem will seem immediately familiar – the comfortable voice(s) of which I spoke – to anyone with more than a passing acquaintance of the poem.  The notes contain the expected expansions upon Eliot’s allusiveness, and upon his use of the myth of the Fisher King in the poem; there is also much on his relationship with Pound and the influence of Vivien Eliot. In this sense, the app provides little that is new.

For me, the heart of this digital edition, however, lies in the “Perspectives” section, which (as I have noted) includes the more personal reflections and comments upon the poem by people as diverse as Frank Turner and Seamus Heaney. These provide what the commentary to the poem really does not: fresh views and understandings of The Waste Land.  This I found also to be a function of audio recordings of readings of the poem: to listen to Alec Guinness’s rendition of The Waste Land  is to hear a very “different” poem, in some respects, than we get hearing Eliot, Hughes, or Shaw, reading it.  Indeed, there are instructive, if subtle, differences between Eliot’s 1933 and 1947 readings of the poem of which I had been unaware.  (I was also personally heartened by Mortensen’s reading, which I am pretty sure is not much better than my own.)  The app really does, quite literally, give us The Waste Land  in different voices.

I do have some cavils.  Eliot’s notes appear at the conclusion of the poem, which is as it should be, but some facility to leap back and forth between these and the text to which they refer would have been helpful. Ironically, consulting the notes in conjunction with the text is a relatively simple task with a printed codex; one need only flip back and forth between pages.  Doing so with this app is somewhat more laborious, and it isn’t possible to have both the text of the poem and Eliot’s own notes on the screen at the same time, although one can read the critical commentary alongside the verse text.

One might wish as well that the notes for the poem had been written afresh, rather than recycled from a now fairly ancient student guide to Eliot, even an updated one.  A awful lot has happened in Eliot scholarship in the past few decades, and it would have been nice to have had better access to such new scholarship than Southam’s book provides.  In this context, too, it’s a shame that the app does not include a brief biographical note on Eliot himself, and one in particular that glances at some of the darker aspects of his life, character, and poetry. Unsurprisingly, this app tends to be a “celebration” of the poem, and generally eschews a more probing critique of its somewhat recidivist aesthetics and ideology.

Screen shot of a page from the "manuscript" of the poem, with annotation in a panel to the lower left.

One might also have wished for a bibliography or list of books and articles for “Further Reading.”  The edition’s notes occasionally cite particular critics by name, but do not, unfortunately, reference the particular papers or monographs being cited. Finally, a minimal textual apparatus would have been helpful. There are references to textual issues in the notes and annotations, but it would have been nice to have had these details assembled in a conventional form in one place.

These issues notwithstanding, I would not hesitate to recommend this app to anyone interested in knowing this poem better, or, for that matter, to my own students. In fact, I would be delighted to assign it as a course text in my first-year English course (in which I do teach The Waste Land), and would probably devote a couple of weeks to exploring it with them, were it cheaply and easily available to all of my students.

But there, alas, lies the rub. While the app itself is quite inexpensive, the hardware required to use it is, of course, not. Sadly, too, this app is available only for the iPad, a particularly pricey little digital toy that is undoubtedly well beyond the means of the majority of my students.

I’ll conclude with a final thought on this kind of app. Touch Press’s The Waste Land and other apps of its kind are self-contained mini-programmes that “live,” for the most part, on your iPad, in isolation from the larger world of the Web.  This fact makes them more stable than online resources, and it also means that they can generally run more quickly, because they are not reliant upon information being streamed to them from an external server. But while much is to be gained by this approach, something else is lost, namely, the connectivity to a (much) larger metaverse of information and resources already existing online. This kind of connectivity is often problematic: web sites disappear, links become “dead,” and, of course, one has to continually exercise one’s judgement to determine what is “worthwhile” and trustworthy from the great mass of dross that is also to be found online. This said, that connectivity is what makes online scholarship truly dynamic, a “work in progress” rather than a neatly packaged but ultimately static book-in-a-box. Additionally, it would be good to see resources like this enable connectivity between “users,” be they students or otherwise.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s comments on the iBook Authors app by Apple are relevant in this context:

The textbooks that can be produced with iBooks Author and read in iBooks 2 are interactive, in the sense of an individual reader being able to work with an individual text in a hands-on fashion. They do not, however, provide for interaction amongst readers of the text, or for responses from a reader to reach the author, or, as far as I can tell so far, for connections across texts. The “book,” though multimediated, manipulable, and disembodied, is still a discrete, fairly closed object.

It is at least mildly disturbing that these new apps are happy to eschew the admittedly problematic fecundity of existence within a larger world of the Web for a safer, but ultimately more sterile existence locked within the hard drive of a tablet computer.

The Wasteland for iPad is probably just about the most attractive, sophisticated, and information-packed app for a digital book now available. But does it herald the arrival of truly scholarly works to the mainstream eBook medium?  Are we, in fact, there yet?  The answer, as I’ll discuss in my next post, is, I think, no.  But, as a major step in the right direction, this app is worthy of some study by digital editors.
—————————

References

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land  for iPad, ed.  Justin Badger and Charles Chabot, Touch Press LLP, and Faber and Faber, 2011. http://touchpress.com/titles/thewasteland/

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “Reflections on the Apple Education Event,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 January, 2012.  http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/reflections-on-the-apple-education-event/37998 Accessed 24 February, 2012.

Elena Pierazzo, “Tablets Apps, or the future of the Scholarly Editons?” Elena Pierazzo’s Blog: Random Thoughts of a Digital Humanist with a Passion for Cookery, 27 November, 2011.  http://epierazzo.blogspot.com/2011/11/tablets-apps-or-future-of-scholarly.html Accessed 24 February, 2012.

Brian C.  Southam, A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, London: Faber and Faber, 1968; 1994.

Morris Zapp and the Playful Fish

Stanley Fish is an important critic.

Let’s begin with that essential statement of fact, because it is a truism that seems to have escaped some of those who have responded, on Twitter and elsewhere, to his recent critique of the digital humanities with a (facetious, one hopes) assertion of Fish’s irrelevance.  While it is true that we are no longer so “surprised” by his critical insights as we once were, that is surely because, like all worthwhile criticism, they have been quietly absorbed into our understanding of what texts are, and how they work; what was once shocking now seems commonplace precisely because he made it so.  To suggest that he has nothing new to say is  a bit like accusing Shakespeare, Pope, or Tennyson of writing clichés.  He is no more “irrelevant” than, say, Matthew Arnold, or Cleanth Brooks.  He is one of the reasons why we are where we are.

For that reason, if for no other, we need to take seriously what Fish has to say about the digital humanities in three columns written for the New York Times, most recently in a post entitled “Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation.

We need, as I say, to take Fish seriously. But not, I want to suggest, too seriously.  Fish’s winking allusion in his second column to the absolutism of Morris Zapp, David Lodge’s caricature of him in the novels Changing Places and Small World, is one means of asserting his own theoretical position.  Fish readily confesses that he, like Zapp, seeks after “pre-eminence, authority and disciplinary power” by covering a topic “with such force and completeness that no other critic will be able to say a word about it.” This assertion is probably accurate enough, but it is also sufficiently arch and “meta” to leave us wondering how seriously we are meant to take it:  the very circularity and ludic quality of the allusion should alert us to the fact that Fish is being at least somewhat playful here. At the same time, while it is not too difficult to credit Fish with the overweening hubris that he seems here, and elsewhere in the columns, to exhibit, we would do well to remember that we are dealing with the critic who changed our understanding of Milton’s über-rhetorician, Satan – and should accordingly respond with a requisite degree of caution.

Fish asks questions, and provides some answers.  The questions are – and always have been – worthwhile.  What are the real contributions that digital humanities has to make to our understanding of literature?  What are the full implications of our methodologies, and of the way in which we think of texts?  And what does it mean, what are the responsibilities that accompany, being the “next big thing” in the humanities (if this is indeed so)?

His answers, on the other hand, are enormously reductive.  It is rather amusing to watch someone critical of the digital enterprise resort to binaries, but this is very much what Fish does.  The notion of a “text in process,” a term he gets from Kathleen Fitzpatrick, comes for Fish to signify that there is no text at all for digital humanists, as though we were all Heraclitus, unable ever to dip a toe into the same text twice.  Text mining becomes (if you’ll forgive the pun) a sort of critical fishing expedition, as though digital humanists never formulate hypotheses.  A focus upon “big data” becomes a negligent attitude towards detail, as though text miners never refined their data to a more granular level.  The ludic quality of such a methodology becomes a “lack of seriousness,” while the acknowledgement of the multivalence of meaning becomes, in Fish’s analysis, an acceptance of all meanings as equally “right,” with the result that the distinction between “truth” and “falsehood” is entirely elided.

And so on.  Fish’s “answers” to the legitimate questions he asks are less a critique of the digital humanities than they are a caricature of its premises and methodologies.  This is not criticism or theory:  it is satire and parody – as is again hinted at by Fish’s playful evocation of the phantom critic Morris Zapp, who is at one and the same time both a fabrication, a parody, and a real life critic. How should one respond to an assault launched by fictional comic character?

Digital humanities needs to answer Fish’s questions, but not by means of responding to his answers, for to do so would put us in the ridiculous situation of Thomas Shadwell responding to the satirical use of “Mac” in the title of Dryden’s Macflecknoe by plaintively asserting that he’d never so much as set foot in Ireland.

We don’t need to respond to Fish’s criticisms seriously – although some clarification of his characterizations might be worthwhile, if only as a public relations exercise – because Fish isn’t really concerned about critiquing the digital humanities in the first place.  These three columns (or “blog” posts, as he smirkingly labels them) aren’t about criticism, theory, the future of literary studies, immortality, religiosity, or indeed any of the issues, themes, and metaphors that Fish evokes:  they are about Stanley Fish.  Everything we need to know about Fish’s real point, and his intention, is revealed in his final paragraph:

But whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play. Nothing ludic in what I do or try to do. I have a lot to answer for.

If we consider Fish’s remarks in the terms of the criteria he himself sets out here, we will discover, I think, that he’s been playing with us, for Fish’s own remarks are transgressions of this mini-manifesto: they generalize where they should engage, they produce a great deal of noise and not much substance, and they are, ultimately, ludic and self-referential.

The real question for digital humanists should be whether this is a “game” that we want to play.

Is this Textbook Really Smarter than Your Prof?

I read this morning Lawrence Summer’s editorial in the New York Times with a mixture of fascination and horror.  Entitled “What You (Really) Need to Know,” the piece contains some motherhood-and-apple-pie truisms — the world is changing rapidly, students need to be “engaged” through “dynamic” educational practices, collaboration is a Good Thing, etc., etc., etc.  But I was stopped short by these two paragraphs:

New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed. Electronic readers allow textbooks to be constantly revised, and to incorporate audio and visual effects. Think of a music text in which you can hear pieces of music as you read, or a history text in which you can see film clips about what you are reading. But there are more profound changes set in train. There was a time when professors had to prepare materials for their students. Then it became clear that it would be a better system if textbooks were written by just a few of the most able: faculty members would be freed up and materials would be improved, as competition drove up textbook quality.

Similarly, it makes sense for students to watch video of the clearest calculus teacher or the most lucid analyst of the Revolutionary War rather than having thousands of separate efforts. Professors will have more time for direct discussion with students — not to mention the cost savings — and material will be better presented. In a 2008 survey of first- and second-year medical students at Harvard, those who used accelerated video lectures reported being more focused and learning more material faster than when they attended lectures in person.

To begin first with Summer’s last point here:  do we really believe that “accelerated video lectures” are superior to attending lectures in person?  Or could it be, just maybe, that the other activities in which students engaged alongside the video lecture (small group discussions, for instance) were what actually made this a better learning experience, and that these were sufficiently effective to make up for the stultifyingly dull experience of watching a video lecture?

The irony of advocating passive video lecturing (and thank goodness he doesn’t “mention the cost savings,” because that of course has no bearing on his argument, right?) in the same editorial in which “Active learning classrooms” are lauded seems lost on Summers.  I can well imagine how a digital lecture, fully integrated with interactive and dynamic elements and features, might produce an excellent learning experience, but that’s not quite the same thing as plunking students down in front of a video of a talking head (however brilliant a head it may be) discussing the causes of the American Revolution.

However, I primarily want to address Summers’ first point about textbooks, which he suggests have been “written by just a few of the most able” pedagogues and scholars.  To begin with, I’m far from sure that this is really an accurate characterization of the way in which textbooks have been produced, but for the moment I’ll accept the premise that current practice is to rely upon the “excellence” of our textbook authors and editors so as to free ourselves up for other “more important” things.

Summers is clearly thinking about, even if he doesn’t directly mention, the new iBooks Author application from Apple;  a link within the paragraph refers readers to an index of NYT stories on that tool.  As is suggested by his segue to video lectures, Summers believes that the “old model” of textbook production is a good thing:  let’s have the “most able” in our disciplines produce the texts, just as we should leave our lecturing to the best lecturers.  Now, however, the “most able” can create these textbooks in iBooks Author, and thereby produce more engaging and interactive texts for our students.

This approach, this acquiescence to the notion that we should let the “most able” build our textbooks for us, seems to me to miss out on an important element of the potential power of iBooks Author, or at least of what that tool represents.

How many of us are truly happy with our textbooks?  I take some care to choose anthologies for my course that are the best available (bearing in mind, however, cost to the student as well), but I still find myself in the not-infrequent position of apologizing to the class for the text.  An error here, an omission there, and on occasion a glaringly awful misprint — I’ve had to direct students’ attention to all of these.  On one memorable occasion, my students were thrown into confusion because a very popular textbook we were using had managed to run parts of two Seamus Heaney poems together, producing a sort of inadvertent monstrous poetic pastiche.

And of course there is the question of availability: I often have to drop from a syllabus a literary text that I’d love to teach simply because it is not available in a cheap modern edition.

Surely part of the appeal of easy-to-use tools like iBooks Author is that they can, in theory, allow us to create our own customized teaching texts?

By this, I don’t mean to suggest that we need to reinvent the wheel every time we teach a course:  I am, by and large, still pretty happy with the Broadview Anthology of Restoration and 18th-Century Literature as the core text for my survey course covering that period, despite some serious cavils here and there.  But what would be really great is an easy way to build on such core textbooks with custom-built texts that allow me to teach literary works or contextual materials not otherwise easily available.  It would be wonderful to enable a more engaging, complete, and dynamic contextualization of the ones that are already in the prefabricated textbook.  So, if I want to teach Daniel Defoe’s The Shortest Way with Dissenters (and I do), or John Dryden’s “Preface” to Fables, Ancient and Modern, neither of which are in the Broadview Anthology, I can do so by creating my own eText versions of these, complete with any media or contextual materials that I think might be worthwhile. Increasingly, textbooks are being offered to us in “modular” form by publishers; what I am suggesting is that we can build some of these modules ourselves.

Such an approach to course texts would, of course, demand a fair amount of work from instructors, and would, as things currently stand, disadvantage those who lack the technical skills to produce their own digital texts. But what I think that iBooks Author potentially represents is a significant move towards a day when there are cheap and easy-to-use tools available to build just such custom modules.  Imagine, for instance, a web site into which someone with the most basic technological knowledge could simply input text and multimedia content, click “Submit,” and receive an ePub-compliant HTML5-encoded text (and maybe XML too) as output?

We’re not there yet, but surely iBooks Author gives us glimpses of a future in which we can all become as smart as our textbooks, because our textbooks are built by us.